August 18, 2018

What would Ronald Reagan do?

Dr. Malcolm Cross

“What would Ronald Reagan do?”

It’s a question many conservatives used to ask, and some still do.  After all, Ronald Reagan is probably modern conservatism’s greatest hero.  And given that he’s also one of my favorite presidents, it’s a question I’ve found myself asking as our city council campaign comes to a close.

Early voting for candidates for city council and school board, as well as on the ISD bond issue, begins on April 23.  Our actual election day is on May 5.  The last few weeks have featured articles in both The Flash Today and The Empire-Tribune, as well as letters to their respective editors, on the candidates vying for office, and of course, we’re seeing their campaign literature in our mailboxes too.

As both a conservative and a student of conservatism, I’m amused by the fact that most of the city council candidates are asserting that they’re conservatives.  Some place more stress on their conservative beliefs than others, but practically all manage to work in some proclamation of loyalty to at least some conservative principles, at least as they understand the term.

And this is hardly surprising.  It’s happened before.  For example, last year a team of city council candidates ran as a team pledged to “keep the council conservative.”  I still have one of their campaign buttons.

In my last two columns, I’ve discussed much of what I think the public should want to learn about our city council candidates.  Two weeks ago, I asked about their spending policies, given that spending and taxes are two sides of the same coin.  Last week I raised the issue of judgment, saying that candidates who show good judgment in approaching public policy making are more trustworthy than those who take a rigid ideological approach to issues.  So today I want to discuss what being a conservative—or at least saying one is a conservative–implies or should imply about one’s stand on the issues and approach to policymaking.  I apologize in advance to all who think I’m beating a dead horse, sounding like a broken record, etc., etc., etc.

So–what is conservatism?  I’m not going to belabor this point too much, having discussed my understanding of conservatism in previous columns.  However, it seems to me at least that conservatism is more a state of mind than a list of public policy prescriptions.  The true conservative understands that reality is complex and messy, and that many of the problems generated by reality defy neat, simple, and easy-to-implement solutions.  The true conservative believes that public policies should be made with prudence, caution, facts, reason, and respect for the lessons of history.  He (or she) rejects a rigid ideological approach which otherwise leads to shaping policy to fit abstract philosophical principles rather than meet the real needs of real people in real situations.

And what are our city council candidates saying?  They all seem to be saying the same thing—lower taxes, more emphasis on infrastructure, etc.

So far, so good.  Nobody wants high taxes, and there are sharp legal and political limits to what taxes we can have, how high they can be, etc.  And more and better infrastructure is one of the keys to a successful program that promotes economic growth and diversification.

But questions, in my opinion, at least, remain.  For example:

  • Do the candidates understand that advocating a policy of “lower taxes,” or “tax cuts,” or “tax rate cuts” is meaningless at best, and cynical at worst, unless tax rates are made to decrease faster than property values increase?
  • Assuming the costs of maintaining and expanding infrastructure to promote economic development rise so much that higher taxes are required—a situation which is not certain to happen, yet which could do so under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances—what will they prioritize—lower taxes, or better infrastructure?
  • Will they still support quality-of-life programs and facilities which make Stephenville a more attractive place in which to live and work, such as Splashville, the Senior Citizens Center, the Library, etc., and if so, by how much?
  • And how will they make their decisions anyway—conservatively, or ideologically?

Ronald Reagan’s greatness, I believe, lay not in any rigid adherence to rigid principles, but in a willingness to act pragmatically within generally defined terms.  He famously advocated tax and spending cuts but he understood the need to use prudence and caution, and to remain rooted in reality.  For example, shortly after becoming Governor of California he supported a tax increase to meet a budget crisis caused by and inherited from his predecessor, and as President, he supported tax increases to close the deficit caused by the tax cut implemented at the beginning of his first term.  He increased spending on national defense to counter the then-growing Soviet and accepted increases in spending on Social Security and Medicare after realizing that these two programs were too popular with the American people to make cuts feasible.  In short, when it came to taxes and spending, Reagan argued for restraint in both, cut where he could, and raised when he had to.

I personally hope that all those elected to our city council will follow Ronald Reagan’s example as they wrestle with the challenges Stephenville faces.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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